10 Most Powerful People in TV News

Apr 24, 2006  •  Post A Comment

It’s the time of year when TelevisionWeek‘s fancy turns to thoughts of who’s up, who’s down, who’s in and who’s out of the club we have dubbed the 10 Most Powerful People in TV News.

As always, the exercise starts with a lot of research that’s plugged into our completely unscientific (yet still earnest) criteria formula that’s part gossip and backstage drama, part muscle and moxie to make things happen, and part profile, ratings, revenues and projections, to which we add a dash of have-we-got-your-attention-now? shock value.

And as always, we invite you to share your opinion after we’ve shared ours. Comments may be sent by e-mail to mgreppi@tvweek.com.

And don’t be shy. We weren’t.

1. Roger Ailes

Chairman, Fox News and Fox Television Stations

Reports to: News Corp. Chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch and News Corp. President and Chief Operating Officer Peter Chernin

Why he was chosen: Roger Ailes is the man with the cash-green thumb that makes him a favorite go-to guy of Rupert Murdoch. He’s driven and inventive and demands the same of those who work for him, whether at Fox News or the Fox Television Stations Group-the latter a challenge that led to the conception in February of a new broadcast network, MyNetworkTV, in order to program and finance the programming of prime time on the Fox-owned stations that will lose UPN affiliation this fall.

He’s the only executive on this list whose news division revenues are regularly highlighted and headlined in the parent company’s earnings reports. For the quarter ended Dec. 31, 2005, Fox News Channel advertising growth helped drive up News Corp.’s cable network division 15 percent.

He’s the only executive on this list whose programming claims 10 out of the Top 10 spots in the weekly ratings competition. Bill O’Reilly’s show is now just one of six Fox News programs that cracked the million-viewer mark for first quarter 2006. And young Shepard Smith, who won many new fans with his reporting on Hurricane Katrina, is the Fox talent most likely to inspire a bidding war.

The No. 1 cable news network is on track to rack up $500 million in ad revenue for the fiscal year-a whopping 20 percent over last year. Fox News Radio has expanded dramatically since it launched two years ago.

Foxnews.com has evolved into a fast-growing Web site with traffic increasing by double-digit leaps from month to month. Its users tend to visit more often and linger longer than users of the competition’s news Web sites.

Fox News Channel has made it official that it is seeking a $1 per-subscriber fee as it renegotiates 10-year-old carriage agreements with cable operators who distribute the channel to some 88 million subscribers nationwide.

Fox News Channel’s status as the home of must-see TV in the cable news world presumably will boost the chances of getting the requisite cable carriage to finally launch the digital business news channel that Mr. Murdoch wants, which could become a reality in late 2006 or 2007.

Like CNN, Fox News Channel has showed double-digit losses of viewers in the target news demo of 25 to 54, but Fox News had more viewers to lose.

Last year’s rank: 3

2. Steve Capus

President, NBC News

Reports to: NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker

Why he was chosen: Steve Capus has quickly and quietly proved he’s a confident leader and a trusted team player in the five months since being named president of NBC News after a short stint as acting president following the early departure of former division President Neal Shapiro.

NBC News boasts the most powerful and profitable morning show (“Today”), the No. 1 Sunday newsmaker show (“Meet the Press With Tim Russert” ) and the No. 1 flagship newscast in “NBC Nightly News With Brian Williams,” despite having lost some 700,000 viewers in the past year.

“Dateline NBC” is suffering erosion along with the rest of the network newsmagazines, but the “Dateline” unit-regarded by Mr. Capus as NBC News’ “prime-time specials unit” because it is so adept at turning breaking news into instant specials-is expected to receive commitments for the same number of hours next season as it did this season.

MSNBC, which was born into a state of perpetual evolution nearly 10 years ago, remains resistant to dramatic ratings growth, although “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” and “Hardball With Chris Matthews” have been giving their CNN counterparts a run for the 25- to 54-year-old money. Still, Mr. Capus has an intimate knowledge of the dynamics of MSNBC. He was a senior daytime producer there before becoming executive producer for more than four years of “The News With Brian Williams,” the nightly cablecast on which Mr. Williams honed his anchor persona in preparation for succeeding Tom Brokaw on “Nightly News.”

For the first quarter, NBC News was significantly ahead of projections for its broadcast, cable and Web efforts.

The news division is a key player in NBC Universal’s digital efforts, which gives Mr. Capus a good deal of power internally, as does the fact that he feels neither intimidated nor overshadowed by Mr. Zucker.

That comfort level has a beneficial effect throughout the NBC News ranks.

Despite preparing to bid an amicable farewell to “Today” co-host Katie Couric, Mr. Capus has reason to feel confident about the future. Under executive producer Jim Bell, “Today” once again enjoys a lead of a million or more viewers over “Good Morning America.” Matt Lauer is freshly committed to five more years as co-host of “Today.” Meredith Vieira, an Emmy nominee for co-hosting ABC’s “The View” and an Emmy winner for her work as host of Buena Vista Television’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” will join Mr. Lauer in September.

Resolving the “Today” dilemma frees Mr. Capus to focus on developing the next generation of NBC News stars, including David Gregory, the versatile and well-regarded White House correspondent who fills in on “Today,” and Campbell Brown, the “Weekend Today” anchor who is a valuable correspondent; on continuing the conversion of NBC News into a news organization that is available on-demand on the Web as well as on the air; and on tweaking “Nightly News” before the competition reveals the changes in their game plans.

This is Mr. Capus’ first year on the list.

3. Sean McManus

President, CBS News and Sports

Reports to: CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves

Why he was chosen: Sean McManus is clearly on the rise. In late 2005 Leslie Moonves asked him to do for CBS News what he did for CBS Sports: restore the credibility, ratings and star power the division enjoyed in more hallowed times. In running both divisions simultaneously, he follows in the footsteps of the late Roone Arledge, who took ABC News and ABC Sports to their pinnacles (and made Mr. McManus’ father, sportscaster Jim McKay, a household name).

The heckling of CBS News by Mr. Moonves-who had grown weary of being unable to get an improved “CBS Evening News” out of Mr. McManus’ predecessor, Andrew Heyward-has ended.

Like Mr. Moonves, Mr. McManus believes in wise spending of whatever it takes to secure game changers and stars. Both men believe they have gotten a game changer in Katie Couric, the “Today” show morning star who wanted something only CBS would give her: the chance to make TV history as the first woman to anchor a flagship newscast solo.

The two executives also recognize that Bob Schieffer will hand over to Ms. Couric a stronger “Evening News” than he took temporary custody of in March 2005, after Dan Rather’s anchor tenure ended a year ahead of schedule due to fallout from the use of disputed documents in his “60 Minutes II” report about President Bush’s Vietnam-era service in the Texas Air National Guard.

Mr. Schieffer is likely to remain a contributor to Ms. Couric’s revamped “Evening News.”

Couric will also be a contributor to “60 Minutes,” by far the strongest of network newsmagazines, yet not immune to the erosion that is eating away at much of the genre this season.

Mr. McManus’ management style is decisive and straightforward though not harsh, but he knows that a little nervous tension helps get and keep his troops on their toes or, in the case of the quick-to-complain old guard, off their soapboxes.

In short order, he promoted “60 Minutes” veteran (and long-ago Couric acquaintance) Rome Hartman to “Evening News” executive producer; convinced one of his favorite sports correspondents, Armen Keteyian, to become chief investigative correspondent focused primarily on “Evening News”; and rotated beats to showcase some of the correspondents he thinks can become stars.

Well aware of the need to improve the performance of “The Early Show,” which has maintained CBS News’ third-place tradition in the morning, Mr. McManus already has brought back Steve Friedman, former “Today” and “Early Show” executive producer, as the executive in charge of strengthening the division’s morning news efforts.

Ad revenues from CBSNews.com, which was relaunched last year, are up year to year for the first quarter, as are ad revenues for CBS News overall.

This is Mr. McManus’ first year on the list.

4. Tim Russert

Managing editor and moderator, “Meet the Press”; political analyst, “NBC Nightly News” and “Today”; anchor, “Tim Russert” on CNBC; contributing anchor, MSNBC; and senior VP and Washington bureau chief, NBC News

Reports to: NBC News President Steve Capus

Why he was chosen: Politicians and lobbyists come and go. Not Tim Russert. With the rare exception-such as Vice President Dick Cheney’s choice of Fox News’ Brit Hume for his first explanation of the quail hunting misfire in which he wounded a GOP VIP-when there’s an apology tour or a get-back-on-the-campaign-bicycle tour or a trial-balloon tour, it’s likely to start with “Meet the Press,” the most powerful and most popular political newsmaker show on TV.

Mr. Russert loses neither his bulldog tenacity nor his fierce cool as he cross-examines those who are, or who want to be, among the most powerful people in the country. The toughest question this pol-turned-newsman himself may have to face this year will be whether he can forgive Republican spinmistress Mary Matalin’s wobbly pro-Cheney, anti-press spin on “Meet” after Vice President Cheney’s hunting accident and invite Ms. Matalin and Democrat hubby James Carville to put on their annual holiday appearance as the strangest of political bedfellows.

He finished the February sweeps ratings period with an average of 4.5 million viewers, extending his win streak to 34 consecutive sweeps. Not only did that represent a 68 percent margin of victory over second-place “Face the Nation” on CBS, but he also improved on his February 2005 performance by 8 percent.

It’s not Sunday morning without “Meet the Press.” That helps make him invaluable to NBC News, which has in Mr. Russert a genuine franchise in a TV news industry that seems to have forgotten how to get and groom franchise players.

Last (nonelection) year’s rank: 6

5. Jon Stewart M

Anchor, “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” on Comedy Central

Reports to: Comedy Central and Spike TV President Doug Herzog

Why he was chosen: As a fake-news anchor, he’s the real deal: astute, informed and incapable of pulling his punch lines.

He’s one anchor who’s at his best when he gets carried away. So he has the ear (and heart) of a generation that wants its news and politics with a twist. His audience-median age 39, 63 percent of them 18 to 49-is one traditional news programs can only fantasize about.

In a midterm election year, he will be the analyst who puts lampshades on the heads of both parties, a talent who will be the preferred guest of morning news programs because he will say what they cannot.

He hosted the Oscars in March, and has seen his audience climb from an average of 1.5 million BO (Before Oscars) to 1.6 million since.

He will host the Peabody Awards June 5, when he’s likely to have a more appreciative audience; he’s a two-time Peabody winner for “The Daily Show.”

And last week he added Democratic Sen. Ted Kennedy’s first booking on a late-night talk show to his long list of big “gets.”

Last year’s rank: 6

6. David Westin

President, ABC News

Reports to: Anne Sweeney, president of the Disney-ABC Television Group and co-chairman of The Walt Disney Co. Media Group

Why he was chosen: For David Westin, the past 12 months have been a year in which almost anything that could go wrong (or not according to plan) did.

It started with the loss of defining anchor Peter Jennings to lung cancer. Then there was the loss of defining interviewer Ted Koppel to a career change; and the near loss of Bob Woodruff to a roadside bomb in Iraq weeks after he and Elizabeth Vargas became the successors to Mr. Jennings. Mr. Woodruff is dramatically improved but still on the disabled list, while Ms. Vargas is scheduled to go on maternity leave at summer’s end.

Viewers loss by “World News Tonight” is perhaps not unexpected under the circumstances of this annus most horribilis.

The dramatic loss of momentum by “Good Morning America”-since last spring, when “GMA” pulled within 40,000 viewers of NBC’s “Today” show for one week-has been particularly vexing, demonstrating just how thin ABC News’ once unmatched star bench has become.

There is Charlie Gibson and there is Diane Sawyer. Both have been temporary “GMA” anchors for seven years. Even with the addition of Robin Roberts to the “GMA” anchor desk last year, both Mr. Gibson and Ms. Sawyer are more precious than ever to “GMA,” as well as to ABC News as a whole.

Ms. Sawyer’s deep-seated need to be considered before and above all others has never been more of a handicap for ABC News than in the past year.

Twice she has expressed interest in the “World News” anchor job, a position Mr. Gibson keenly wanted, only to change her mind. Had Mr. Westin moved more decisively, he could have beat CBS News and Katie Couric to the history-making punch by naming Ms. Sawyer anchor of “World News Tonight.”

The good news is that “Nightline” has not suffered in the ratings with the loss of Mr. Koppel. The bad news is that worrisome rumors persist that West Coast network executives have seriously considered flip-flopping “Nightline” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live” and supplanting “Primetime” if the entertainment development for 2005-06 looks promising enough.

“Primetime’s” viewership is bucking the trend for newsmagazines by being up slightly season to date and year to year, but it languished in 92nd place out of 209 shows this season. And Ms. Sawyer’s recent interview with Tom Cruise, unconvincingly swapping BlackBerried emoticons with fianc%E9;e Katie Holmes mere days before their TomKitten was born, didn’t have anyone thanking God for an unusual Friday broadcast of the show.

Last year’s rank: 4

7. Katie Couric

Co-anchor, NBC’s “Today”

Alan Berger

Ms. Couric’s CAA agent

Reports to: Until she signs off at the end of May, Ms. Couric reports to NBC News President Steve Capus and her former executive producer, now NBC Universal Television Group CEO Jeff Zucker.

Why they were chosen: Katie Couric will make history-and some $15 million a year-and every possible magazine and newspaper lifestyle section cover as the first woman to solo as the anchor of a broadcast network’s flagship newscast, and agent Alan Berger helped make her dream come true.

Some wags might say all Ms. Couric had to do was let the professionally smitten CBS Corp. CEO Leslie Moonves chase her until he caught her. But Mr. Berger w
as the Henry Kissinger-ish character shuttling between fierce rivals Mr. Moonves and Mr. Zucker, smoothing the way for a speedy and gentlemanly resolution that left each party feeling good, if not downright giddy, at the outcome.

Whether one is convinced that Ms. Couric is the right person for the job or not, the summer will be spent making predictions and relentlessly rooting for every shred of real and imagined information about the process of altering “Evening News” to fit her persona-something that she, in her role as the newscast’s managing editor, will have much to say about.

By the time she debuts in September, the “C” in CBS will stand for “Couric.” On the next day, any available ratings and demographic information available from Nielsen Media Research-and we know that if CBS News doesn’t pony up for the earliest possible national data, at least one of its competitors will-is going to be microscopically dissected and the daily post-mortems will begin. By the end of Ms. Couric’s first week on “Evening News,” even your favorite Aunt Agatha will be able to hold up her end of the coffee klatsch or cocktail party conversation about every rating, share and demographic point lost or gained by Ms. Couric.

The Couric act will be a tough one to follow for Mr. Berger, whose client list ranges from the one-of-a-kind Simon Cowell and “GMA” executive producer Ben Sherwood to husband-and-wife broadcasters Maury Povich and Connie Chung.

This is the first appearance on the list for both Ms. Couric and Mr. Berger.

8. N.S. Bienstock

Talent agency owned and run by husband and wife Richard Leibner and Carole Cooper

Why it was chosen: The team headed by Richard Leibner and Carole Cooper is a perennial on this list because it defines full-service agency and has proved it knows how to evolve.

Once best known for representing the likes of former “Evening News” anchor Dan Rather (still an important client), Bienstock’s stable includes prime-time cable news stars Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, Anderson Cooper and Paula Zahn at CNN, Chris Matthews at MSNBC and Glenn Beck, who will try to capitalize on his talk-radio stardom when he joins CNN Headline News’ prime-time lineup.

The agency also represents Campbell Brown, who was one of NBC News’ internal candidates to succeed Katie Couric on “Today.”

Last year’s rank: 7

9. Matt Lauer

Co-anchor, NBC’s “Today”

Meredith Vieira

Co-host, ABC’s “The View” (and host, Buena Vista’s “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”)

Reports to: Mr. Lauer reports to NBC News President Steve Capus; Ms. Vieira reports to ABC’s Barbara Walters.

Why they were chosen: There’s no reason the “Today” show couldn’t soar to new ratings and revenue heights when Matt Lauer and Meredith Vieira begin co-anchoring the “Today” show in September. The duo of Mr. Lauer and Ms. Vieira demonstrated credible instant chemistry at the NBC press conference announcing that Ms. Vieira would succeed Katie Couric.

Both are at the top of their game. Both are grown-ups who know how to have infectious fun. Both are justifiably richer-he with a new $13 million-per-year contract and she soon to make almost $10 million per year. This looks like a match made in morning-show heaven.

Neither Mr. Lauer nor Ms. Vieira was on the list last year.

10. Jim Walton

President, CNN News Group

Jonathan Klein

President, CNN/U.S.

Ken Jautz

Executive VP, CNN News Group; responsible for the CNN Headline News Network and for group operations and administration and program and talent development

Report to: Mr. Walton reports to Turner Broadcasting System Chairman and CEO Philip Kent; Mr. Jautz and Mr. Klein report to Mr. Walton.

Why they were chosen: This is the team with the formidable task of making the CNN empire as essential in the increasingly complicated future as it was when it had the cable news world all to itself.

In the Fox-free days, the cable news stars were CNN’s Larry King and Lou Dobbs. Today, “Larry King Live” remains the only CNN show that can break the million-viewer mark on the average day, but there are six Fox News Channel shows that outdraw him. “Lou Dobbs Tonight” is CNN’s third most popular show, behind much of Fox’s daytime lineup and CNN’s prime-time “Anderson Cooper 360.”

Mr. Cooper, who has become an occasional contributor to “The Oprah Winfrey Show” and an occasional guest host on “Live With Regis and Kelly” since Hurricane Katrina brought out his sensitive, soulful side, represents the younger and more sophisticated image to which CNN aspires. The suspendered and shameless Larry King is a nightly reminder that the old CNN lives on at the expense of the new CNN. By letting everyone from Nancy Grace to Ryan Seacrest and Star Jones fill in for Mr. King, CNN reveals it doesn’t know who its next Larry King will be.

The increasingly opinionated Lou Dobbs, who campaigns against letting American jobs out of the country or illegal workers into the country, is getting attention by channeling his inner churl, but he doesn’t do it with the same brio that seems to come naturally to Fox News Channel stars.

Meanwhile, CNN Headline News, which had better luck at reinventing itself in prime time last year, is about to launch “Glenn Beck,” a show it hopes will prove to be a hit companion for “Nancy Grace.”

Last year’s rank: 9

Honorable Mention

Bob Schieffer

Interim anchor, “CBS Evening News”; moderator and managing editor, “Face the Nation”

A big hand, please, for Bob Schieffer, who has done double duty for a year, improving the performance of both the “CBS Evening News” and “Face the Nation.” With that batting average, he has more than earned the Bob-blehead Schieffer doll he will pick up June 16 from his hometown minor baseball league team, the Fort Worth Cats.

Last year’s rank: Honorable mention.